When the Jasmine revolution swept up the Arab spring, detractors around the world said democratic nations would be safe. The new media revolution would only help democracies engage further. This belief has held strong. Yet, those in the corridors of power, here in India, have felt increasingly uncomfortable. This is unchartered territory. The government finds itself in a new information battlefield with no contingency plan. The manipulation of the social media in allegedly spurring the mass exodus of north east Indians from all over the country, fearing retaliation in the aftermath of the Assam violence, has only confirmed its worst fears.
The government reaction has been typical—censorship and crackdown. But naturally, the backlash to the decision has been equally loud, spurring a nationwide debate on internet freedom and government control. It is almost a sense of deja vu! The last time we saw television studio discussions this animated and newspaper editorials this frantic was during the peak of the “India Against Corruption” movement spearheaded by a septuagenarian Gandhian Anna Hazare. Social media in combination with television coverage gave the movement an unprecedented momentum that had the establishment completely taken by surprise. The impulsive reaction then too was an immediate crackdown on social media websites. The only difference was that then the millions out on the street were protesting misgovernance, today they are fleeing for their safety.
Here are two examples: one that pledges to test the true strength of our democracy and the other that exposes the helplessness of the establishment to guarantee and assure its citizens safety against hate crimes. In both cases, what is obvious is the manipulation of the messenger. Clearly, the establishment has been sitting this game out. With no tools at its disposal, or specialists aware of the advances in the new communication genre, the government is simply overwhelmed. The glare of 24x7 news coverage hastens reaction time resulting in predictable statements threatening crackdown and censorship. In fact, some television journalists believe that it was relentless pressure from social media followers of various networks that actually propelled sustained television coverage of the Assam violence.1 The new media impact is clearly here to stay.
In response to this, according to the most recent reports from Guwahati, the government has banned 250 websites, which, it alleges, fuelled the communal fears.2 The Indian government has also stated that it possesses evidence against a Pakistan-based hardline group that is alleged to have been involved in doctoring images and spreading them across Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and other such websites to incite people and create panic among people from the north east living across India.3 The Prime Minister’s Office has asked Twitter to remove all fake account handles floated in the name of the Prime Minister.4 While Twitter relented partially, Google and Facebook have responded to government pressure by citing legal tangles and redirecting requests to Uncle Sam.5 The US government, incidentally, urged India a few days ago to maintain internet freedom amid reports of a crackdown.6
This episode, which has started the controversy on social media and regulation, begs many questions to be answered. First, can the authorities truly blame social media alone for the ramifications of the violence in Assam to the hate crimes in Pune, protests in Mumbai and the exodus from Bangalore? Second, if rumours alone could trigger mass exodus, there also looms the larger question of integration and identity of citizens from the north east with the rest of India. As a nation we have failed to assure them of their safety. Finally, violence in Assam still continues despite government clampdowns on social media. So, are we really missing the wood for the trees?
If one were to leave the politics aside and look at the bigger picture, India and its governance machinery have stood exposed to a massive cyber security challenge and put themselves in an awkward position both domestically and internationally. Experts on cyber security admit that even reports on cyber security that provide policy recommendations to the government have often overlooked the aspect of dealing with social media. But can we afford to do this any longer?
According to a survey analysis on social media usage in India, of the TRAI listed 121 million internet users 46 million are monthly active Facebook users (which has made India dethrone Indonesia from the second spot of most frequent Facebook usage).7 Twitter has a total user base of more than 14 million in India, which is also the sixth largest country in terms of personal accounts.8 This by no means is a small number. It also reflects the changing patterns of communication among urban India. This is an audience that the government needs to reach out to.
While appreciating the effort taken by the government and various departments to engage with the new media phenomenon, one but has to ask – in the face of these staggering numbers, is hosting twitter handles and facebook account links on government pages enough? Routine schedules of meetings and press releases aside, do the authorities engage and exploit the potential of the new media to their advantage? Most importantly is a there a method to this madness?
Perhaps there is, but the problem lies herein. We have never heard it out and aloud. Or at least that is the perception. The messages don’t seem to get through the clutter. The problem seems to stem from the organisational culture and mindset, which has still not embraced the phenomenon that is the new media revolution. So every time there is a problem that stems up in the space, the establishment’s impulsive reaction is to shut down.
Journalists reporting on the ground in Assam confirm that there has still been no effort from either the state government or the centre in using the social media and other forms of communication to counter the rumour mongers creating havoc in the state. All the efforts have been concentrated on clamping down on websites with offensive content. This approach is necessary, but reactive. Could authorities have invested in a plan to communicate assurances of protection and safety to the people in the affected areas? The Prime Minister’s speech in both houses of Parliament may not have been heard by a villager in a relief camp in Assam.
For the government, the internet has always been a tool for better governance and its application has been technical, with issues of e-governance handled by technocrats. Not much thought has been given to the aspect of content and here lies its biggest shortcoming. 9 Now having come under strident criticism, the Centre has “fine tuned its cyber strategy by setting up a dedicated panel to screen websites…. [and] deciding against a blanket ban of Twitter handles it has sought to set up a panel to screen every URL or website that intelligence and technical agencies believe should be blocked.”10 However, in the interim, the passing of orders and their subsequent retraction, amplified by clumsy press releases, has resulted in the government clearly losing the perception battle.11
Yet, many believe that pushing the bureaucracy to develop a proactive approach to communicating with the people and simultaneously developing a system to regulate social media content is also beset with systemic problems. The issue is two pronged – social media monitoring and media engagement. The NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation), the apex intelligence body under the National Security Advisor, still does not have an official mandate of a monitoring agency. Ironically, it has only 50 people to handle media monitoring for the entire nation.12 On the other hand, if one required authorities to engage and counter propaganda, the most common refrain is the predicament of the fear of the Official Secrets Act that hovers above like the sword of Damocles. “Larger issues of governance stuck in the paradigm of the colonial era mindset stand in the way of efforts to counter offensive propaganda and project a robust image of the country”, says Josy Joseph, Senior Journalist with the Times of India.13
Censorship and crackdown can only be interim solutions. We need to look at alternative models that don’t normatively take away the idea of India as a healthy democracy and draw negative comparisons with China. The immediate need is to communicate strategically and not shoot the messenger.